We’re Actually Not All Entrepreneurs

Horatio Alger, Jr., Harvard Class of 1852
Horatio Alger, a Harvard man...Image via Wikipedia

I weary of this trope, that — because there are so few new jobs available in the ongoing American recession — we’re all entrepreneurs now!

Guess what?

We’re not.

Saying so flies in the face of a pile o’ American myths:

the rugged individualist; the Ipad-toting Paul Bunyan; the bootstrapper; Horatio Alger; the endless, seductive, oooooooh-can-I do-that-too? allure of reinventing yourself over and over and over and over because….

It works really well for employers who don’t want to invest their money in tedious things like a stable workforce, health benefits or pensions.

Have you gone out to price market-rate health insurance lately?

That’ll send you right back to your miserable little cubicle in gratitude, missy!

Working for yourself, as those of us who do know, means paying our own FICA and, unless we can get health insurance through a spouse or domestic partner, paying through the nose for the privilege of not ever being able to file for unemployment benefits or sick pay.

Better not fail, kids!

I simply don’t buy this shiny new paradigm, that we’ll all meant to job-hop on a second’s notice, with whatever shiny new skills we’ve just acquired (at our own expense, natch!), while corporate fat-cats suck up increasingly huge salaries and the middle class and below, often those without the shiny skills and degrees to do the job-tap-dance, falls deeper into debt and despair.

Some people are really lousy at running their own business!

They’re lazy or undisciplined or not very well educated or have a million distractions or (imagine this!) other interests beyond working 24/7…so a job that is defined and waiting for them on Monday mornings (or Sunday afternoons, whatever) is just the ticket.

Millions of people are simply not at all suited to waking up alone in their home, figuring out exactly what is necessary to:

find clients; please clients; complete excellent work on schedule, never missing a deadline (hello, people and their families get sick!); revising the project as needed; invoicing it; getting paid promptly; finding new clients….Rinse and repeat!

I grew up in a family where no one ever had a paycheck, pension, sick days, paid vacation days. We were all freelance creatives, working in print, film and television. So I’ve lived for decades the life of the self-employed (but entrepreneur sounds so much sexier, doesn’t it?) and it is really not nearly as cool or free or carefree as the cube-bound fantasize.

This, from Tom Friedman in The New York Times:

This is precisely why LinkedIn’s founder, Reid Garrett Hoffman, one of the premier starter-uppers in Silicon Valley…has a book coming out after New Year called “The Start-Up of You,” co-authored with Ben Casnocha. Its subtitle could easily be: “Hey, recent graduates! Hey, 35-year-old midcareer professional! Here’s how you build your career today.”

Hoffman argues that professionals need an entirely new mind-set and skill set to compete. “The old paradigm of climb up a stable career ladder is dead and gone,” he said to me. “No career is a sure thing anymore. The uncertain, rapidly changing conditions in which entrepreneurs start companies is what it’s now like for all of us fashioning a career. Therefore you should approach career strategy the same way an entrepreneur approaches starting a business.”

To begin with, Hoffman says, that means ditching a grand life plan. Entrepreneurs don’t write a 100-page business plan and execute it one time; they’re always experimenting and adapting based on what they learn.

It also means using your network to pull in information and intelligence about where the growth opportunities are — and then investing in yourself to build skills that will allow you to take advantage of those opportunities. Hoffman adds: “You can’t just say, ‘I have a college degree, I have a right to a job, now someone else should figure out how to hire and train me.’ ” You have to know which industries are working and what is happening inside them and then “find a way to add value in a way no one else can. For entrepreneurs it’s differentiate or die — that now goes for all of us.”

Finally, you have to strengthen the muscles of resilience. “You may have seen the news that [the] online radio service Pandora went public the other week,” Hoffman said. “What’s lesser known is that in the early days [the founder] pitched his idea more than 300 times to V.C.’s with no luck.”

Don’t get me wrong.

I am all for independence and self-reliance. I have zero tolerance for people unable, on a decent income, to save money, who have no idea of their finances.

But, you know, there’s no VC out there funding my work. Ever. “The muscles of resilience” are meaningless without, say, six months’ living expenses sitting in your bank account at all times, because many of us will need months, if not years, to find a new full-time job or get the cool new gig we’ve invented into the black. Not everyone has the financial resources to boot-strap.

What if (we have no kids or dependent family members) you are already saddled by the multiple financial needs of others? There’s no one-size-fits-all here.

This growing demand — sanctioned here by a columnist with a six-figure income — that every worker be all-nimble-all-the-time — with zero help or investment on the part of those whose corporate profits will only grow as a result? This doesn’t work for me.

Here's Some Housing Growth — Tent Cities for the Desperate

Washington, District of Columbia. Tent life of...
Image by David C. Foster via Flickr

The name is Pinellas Hope, a tent city of 250 run by the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg. It costs $2.6 million a year to run and will not accept families. It offers three free meals a day, and has washers and dryers, even Internet access. The average length of stay is now 77 days — and a third of its residents, typically the chronic homeless, are now economic refugees, those who’ve simply run out of options in this recession. Florida has the highest rate of home foreclosures in the nation, with 300,000 standing empty. Pinellas Hope has a waiting list of 150.

It’s one of many such “cities” springing up around the U.S. as the formerly middle class, men and women, some of whom once owned their own homes and all of whom went to work every day, hit bottom. Here’s a Wall Street Journal story today about one in Nashville.

Today, on BBC World News, reporter James Gordon interviewed Kevin Stutt, a former waiter who has been out of work since September and who now lives in a tent at Pinellas Hope. He described his job search as “terrible” and says he has sent out 250 applications. On the rare occasion he gets an interview, he told BBC:

“I have nice clothes. I go to job interviews as if I’m still living with my wife in Seminole. Nobody can tell by looking at me I just slithered out of a tent.”

These new neighborhoods springing up across the U.S. are the essence of desperation. They may not be in your backyard — or yet, as Hoovervilles once stood, in Central Park — but they’re a visible, terrifying reminder what can happen next if you lose your final grasp of the economy’s bottom rung. Here’s a New York Times profile of one tent city in Fresno.

A 2006 film, The Pursuit of Happyness, starred Will Smith as Chris Gardner (based on his true-life Horatio Alger story), reduced to homelessness who regains much of his former life, even while homeless, winning a well-paid job at investment firm. All of which now looks even more like a fantasy — a struggling African-American man able to scramble back up the ladder, the financial industry his instrument of salvation.

As columnist Bob Herbert writes in today’s New York Times:

“the economic ship is still sinking…The American economy does not seem able to provide enough jobs — and nowhere near enough good jobs — to maintain the standard of living that most Americans have come to expect.” The official jobless rate lowered, he writes, “not because more people found jobs but because 450,000 people withdrew from the labor market. They stopped looking, so they weren’t counted as unemployed.”

More than five million workers — about a third of the unemployed — have been jobless for more than six months. That’s the highest number recorded since accurate records have been kept.”

Gives tarp a new meaning.